A Fish Tale for the Ages (John 21:1–14)

Read John 21:1–14.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what prompted Peter to go fishing on the Sea of Galilee one night after Jesus’ resurrection. Some have speculated that he felt unworthy to be an apostle after betraying Jesus, so he was trying his old life back on for size. There may be an element of truth to that theory, but given how Peter responds when Jesus shows up on the shore, I find that difficult to believe. Joy, not shame, sent him into the water with his coat on.

So why the all-night fishing expedition? Perhaps it was simply because Simon Peter enjoyed fishing. After all, it had been his vocation prior to encountering Jesus. He’d spent years out on the lake mastering the job. He also had a wife to care for. It may simply be that he had a boat, a free evening, and bills to pay. But whatever the reason for Peter’s late-night expedition, we can be sure that being out on that lake—the setting for several of Jesus’ miracles—had him thinking through the last three years of his life. I imagine that, in his mind, Peter went back to the beginning.

John tells us Andrew brought his brother to meet the Messiah (see John 1:40–42). That was the start of their relationship. But the other gospel writers tell us about another early meeting Peter had with Jesus. Peter and Andrew had just finished a long evening of fishing, and as the sun was rising in the east and the pair were cleaning their nets, Jesus came walking along on the shore.

Hoping to achieve better acoustics for the crowd gathering on the beach to hear His teaching, He asked Peter to push out from the shore. Peter complied. When it was all over, Jesus told Peter, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Of course, Peter knew better. He was the experienced fisherman in the boat, not Jesus. He knew the best fishing happened at night, before the sun rose and the heat of the day drove the fish into the cooler water far below the surface. He had also just finished cleaning the nets and was tired from a night of hard work. He wanted to head home and into bed, not back out into the water. But because it was Jesus, Peter did not push back. A few minutes later, he was shouting to James and John in another boat for help. The impossible catch was too much for the strained nets to bear; they were breaking, and he needed two boats to bring in the haul.

Seeing that miraculous catch of fish, Peter was struck with terror. In the presence of such a sign, his own sin weighed heavily. But Jesus was not there to condemn Peter. Instead, he had a job for him to do: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people” (v. 10).

I recount that story because I believe John wants us to have it in mind* as we read his very similar account here in John 21:

  • Once again, Peter is fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
  • Once again, Peter’s been out all night and has nothing to show for his effort.
  • Once again, Jesus gives him special instructions to bring in a catch.
  • Once again, the haul is beyond belief.

After a cursory glance, a reader might suspect John has simply moved the same miraculous fishing account to a different moment in his gospel, perhaps for thematic effect. But there are a number of differences that make this a sequel rather than a retelling.

  • Before, it was Peter and Andrew out in the boat. Now the cast is larger and includes Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two unnamed disciples.
  • Before, Jesus told Peter to push out into deeper water. Now, He simply tells the group to cast the nets off the right side of the boat.
  • Before, the catch was so large it broke the nets. Now, the nets hold the weight, and the fish are even counted—153 in total!
  • Before, Peter knew he was talking with Jesus of Nazareth, but the miracle opened his eyes to Jesus’ true identity as “Lord” (Luke 5:8). Now, Peter doesn’t know it’s Jesus until he sees the huge catch of fish and another disciple tells him, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7).
  • Before, Peter’s response was to recoil in fear. Now, it’s to put on his coat and jump into the water. He doesn’t want to wait a moment longer than necessary to be with Jesus.

Since the first miraculous catch of fish became Peter’s moment of commission, this new catch would seem to be a new commission for a new era of ministry. Jesus will shortly return to the Father, and Peter and the other disciples are being called to continue His work—still fishing for people but with Jesus living in and through them. That the nets refuse to break suggests Jesus is giving His friends the assurance that their mission will not fail. They will bring in all whom Jesus has called. Not one will be lost.

But what about the number of fish—153? Over the centuries, the number has baffled Bible readers and New Testament scholars alike. What is John trying to communicate by giving us the specific count of fish? Some have argued there really is no significance, only that the number tells us the haul was a big one and that the disciples took special care to count the fish. Others see a code of some kind. Perhaps when the number is converted into letters of the alphabet, an important word is revealed. If so, no contender stands out as a likely suspect.

It is interesting that 153 is a triangular number, meaning that if you were to add all the numbers from one to seventeen (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + . . . 17), you get 153. Those numbers, if expressed as points on separate lines (one dot on the first line, two dots on the line beneath it, three dots beneath that, and so on), would form a triangle. That’s pretty neat, but it doesn’t exactly tell us why John included the detail, nor does 153’s status as a triangular number exactly jump off the page.

So what are we to do with this account of miracle fishing? Because of all the connections with the earlier fishing account, I think we are meant to see it as a continuation and a confirmation. The first time, Jesus promised Peter He’d turn him into a fisher of men. To encourage His friend who was still processing the worst mistake of his life—denying the Lord three times in His hour of need—Jesus reminds Peter of His promise. And to show him that he will be an instrument in the hands of the Lord, the nets do not break. Peter will be used by God, regardless of his mistakes and human weaknesses. Jesus will redeem everyone who comes to Him. No one will fall through a broken net.

I’m not convinced that the mention of 153 is unimportant. As I’m fond of saying, “Papyrus ain’t cheap.” In other words, I don’t believe there are throwaway lines in the Bible. Every phrase, every word, every jot and tittle—it’s all important. But that doesn’t always mean we will be able to discern every detail quickly or easily. After all, we’re dealing with a text forged in the unlimited mind of God. I can’t imagine we’ll be able to solve every mystery this side of glory.

At some point, someone may be able to posit a compelling and satisfying answer to this 153-fish business, but then again, maybe not. It may be that this is one of the beautiful enigmas that the Lord Himself will reveal to us in the coming kingdom. Jesus explained the Word of God to His friends during His earthly ministry (see Luke 24:25–27). I have no reason to think He won’t do it again in the future.

Until then, let’s get busy fishing for people. The nets aren’t going to break, and Jesus has promised His followers a miraculous haul.

* It is not typical for a gospel writer to assume his readers have knowledge of the other gospels. Although it’s popular today to preach a harmony of the gospels that presents a fuller picture of Jesus’ life and teachings, the gospels themselves were written as standalone accounts, each having its own themes and purposes. John, however, seems to have written later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Therefore, there are a few instances in which he does seem to think his readers will know something not explicitly spelled out in his version of events. See, for example, John 11:2, where John mentions that Mary of Bethany is the same Mary “who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” Since John doesn’t detail the perfume-pouring event until chapter 12, the only way that comment would connect with his first readers is if they were familiar with the event as recorded in Matthew 26:6–13, Mark 14:3–9, or Luke 7:37–39.

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